The central character in this week’s D&C sections is Oliver Cowdery, the primary scribe and assistant to Joseph Smith in the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. In our mythology1, we frequently recount the story, told in two of these sections2, of Oliver’s attempt and failure at translating the Book of Mormon, often to teach the idea (among others) that receiving revelation is work, something that we need to put effort into. A third of these section also seeks to help Oliver understand revelation, while the fourth is, if nothing else, an example of revelation. So we don’t need to search hard to find a theme for this week.
The Revelation by Hannah Deady Tomsik
And the theme of revelation appears regularly in LDS poetry. Let’s start with a very personal poem, and one that I think will resonate with many of us today. It was written in 1921, not long after the influenza pandemic, by Hannah Tomsik of Washington City, Utah. At this point she was a mother of three small children, and her immediate family had escaped the pandemic. But her poem suggests that she saw many others suffer:
- We look upon our neighbor in his grief,
- And wonder how he bears the bitter pain.
- In our weak way, we try to give relief;
- We try to help and comfort, but in vain.
- We see him lay the dear ones in the dust,
- And bravely struggle on along life’s way;
- We marvel at his loyalty and trust,
- And that he still can toil and pray.
- We pray with throbbing hearts and bated breath: –
- “Oh! spare me Lord such sacrifice, such pain!
- To see my loved ones lying cold in death,
- I could not bear — though they shall live again!”
- Yet, bowed beneath the Cross and left alone —
- When death takes all that makes life’s living sweet,
- We feel God’s hand clasped close within our own,
- And love and understanding is complete.
I how much this suggests the process of revelation—from a triggering life event to struggle with understanding to prayer and eventually revelation. And, in the end, Christ’s atonement is involved in the answer. (H/T to Ardis at Keepapitchinin for this one).
Thinking of Christ in wartime
One of the counsels given to Oliver in section 6, is that he should “look unto [Christ] in every thought3,” something that strikes me as very difficult to do. The following poem is an example of thinking of Christ in difficult circumstances, if not in every thought itself. The poet, Dott Jensen Sartori, was born in Idaho and lived most of her life in Salt Lake City. She regularly wrote poetry for Church magazines and in 1942 won the Eliza R. Snow memorial prize for her poem Your Heritage. I don’t know for sure who might be the soldier in the foxhole in this poem, but it may have been her third husband, who was registered in the draft and who she married in 1945, a year after this poem was written.
Christmas Card from a Foxhole
- I send no midnight scene of Bethlehem
- Illumined in the distance by the star,
- No tinted picture of the peaceful hills
- Where sleeping lambs and watchful shepherds are.
- No sapphire arc of sky with amber glow
- Suffuses color over this white plain,
- Yet here is Christ light bright within my thought
- To strike the holy note of joy again.
- Here He has passed the years of innocence,
- Here lies the pathway of His ministry,
- Here holds His word the sure, the just reply
- To questioning and all adversity.
- Here is the written testament of one
- Who learned at last the surety that He,
- If called upon, will fill the limpest stocking
- Which hangs beneath the smallest Christmas tree.
(H/T to Ardis at Keepapitchinin)
Mabel Jones Gabbott’s The Prophet Speaks
An aspect of revelation that we often emphasize is the role of leadership—the deference accorded to leaders in receiving revelation for the group. While I don’t think I’ve ever seen it mentioned in the context of Oliver’s attempt to translate, I suspect we often assume that an element of Oliver’s failure was that it wasn’t his calling to translate. And I think for many of us who are democratically inclined, this can be hard to understand—often, but not always, in the selfish vein of “why not me?4”
Mabel Jones Gabbott is one of my favorite LDS poets, best known for her three hymns in the current LDS hymnal and others in the Primary Children’s Songbook. But her poetry is much more extensive than that, gracing the pages of church periodicals from the 1940s through the 1960s.The Prophet Speaks shows not only the prophet’s every-day inspiration, but also the reverence that Church members have for how this priesthood office is embodied in an individual.
The Prophet Speaks
- So tall he stood there, noble, fine and proud,
- Sustained by power greater than his own.
- He said, “I shall not talk so very loud,”
- But in his eyes a glorious message shone.
- He read the excerpts that he had prepared
- And then forgetting self and doctors too,
- He poured his heart out to the Saints and shared
- With us, his testimony strong and true.
- His words came freely, ringing rich and clear:
- “God lives, have faith in Him, and keep His word.”
- It seemed to me the Lord was very near
- And prompting him to say the things we heard.
- The Prophet spoke today, so kind, so dear,
- And my heart prayed, “Bless President Grant, dear Lord.”
For what it’s worth, Heber J. Grant was 89 when this poem was published. He passed away four years later. (And again H/T to Ardis at Keepapitchinin).
Small correction, for what it’s worth: Heber J. Grant passed away in 1945 at the age of 89 four years after the last poem was published in 1941. Not to detract from the messages of the poems or the worthwhile commentary. Thanks.
As our 15 don’t have to translate, and with our succession system, how do we know they can be prophets, are qualified to be prophets, just because they have the title? Evidence?
On a similar note, Joseph was exhausted after a night of revelation, and incapable of work as a teenager. Would our aged prophets survive an actual revelation from above.
Could this be why revelation has been redefined, as the 15 agreeing? My perception is that they don’t disagree, so not difficult. Would Oliver Cowdery have any trouble being a prophet today?
When did they start to claim all 15 were prophets, seers, and revelators? Who took the title unto themselves or was there a revelation?
Geoff “Could this be why revelation has been redefined, as the 15 agreeing? My perception is that they don’t disagree, so not difficult.”
That appears to be a misguided assumption. Much like a ward council or any other church leadership group, the point is to have a broad spectrum of views. Check out this comment from Henry Eyring on that subject. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8tccvnKEy0
Geoff, the titles seem to been given fairly early on in the Church. Revelations in 1830 began to give the titles to Joseph Smith, and as early as 1836, Smith seems to have asked that the Quorum of the Twelve be acknowledged as prophets, seers, and revelators as well. Back when we officially had a patriarch for the Church, he was also sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator until the mid-twentieth century.
Chad, It seems the Church has for years used “prophets, seers, and revelators” as titles quite apart from whether those sustained with such titles met any definition of those terms other than holding the titles. I did note from a 1880 conference report that only the Twelve Apostles and their two counselors were sustained as “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” not the patriarch.
Of course the apostles were then the presiding quorum and authority of the Church and sustained as such. John Taylor was sustained as “President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as one of the Twelve Apostles, and of the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. He was also sustained as “Trustee-in-Trust for the body of religious worshippers known and recognized as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to hold the legal title to its property and to contract for it.” The Twelve Apostles [including Taylor himself], their two counselors, and the presiding bishop were sustained as counselors to the Trustee-in-Trust.
I have wondered at the scope of confusion resulting from confusing the titles “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” with various English meanings of those words. I suspect there are many who do not recognize their use as titles in Mormon-speak as something distinct from English.
I suppose that’s a fair point, Wondering, that the titles are possibly more about tradition than function. I hold to hope that they receive inspiration from God in how they govern the Church, but to Geoff’s earlier point, we don’t seem to see them acting in the same ways as Joseph Smith did in his prophetic role.
As far as the agreeing thing, Geoff, I believe the working towards agreement before announcing things to the public is meant to be a check to confirm that they are receiving inspiration and to prevent one person from throwing things off course (though that still seems to happen once in a while). The policy seems to be that they generally try to reach agreement before speaking to the public about a decision, which might be part of why it seems like they don’t disagree. We just don’t have a good view into what’s going on in their meetings to really know. Though Greg Prince’s David O. McKay biograohy gives us a glimpse of how the leading quorums work behind the scenes, I think.